How Helene Henderson Turned a Malibu Tourist Trap into a Food Empire

The former private chef is proving that the spot at the end of the pier isn’t always reserved for overcooked burgers and $7 milkshakes

Plonk! The body of a small fish lands inches from Helene Henderson’s leg. It’s bait, attached to a hook that an embarrassed teen failed to cast into the water. “One of the many hazards of operating on the pier,” says Henderson. She doesn’t wear sunglasses—after more than a year of running Malibu Farm, her small counter-service restaurant on the deep end of the beach city’s historic landmark, she’s used to the glare.

From her perch above the Pacific Ocean, the Swedish-born Henderson has been quietly and quickly transforming the Malibu food scene. Her 1,200-square-foot shack now feeds more than 3,000 people on a summer weekend and will soon expand into the larger, more prime-time restaurant space at the shore end of the pier, complete with a produce-driven cocktail bar and a wood-fired oven. Henderson has also signed a deal with Nobu, which will install licensed Malibu Farm restaurants at new hotel properties across the United States and Mexico.

Malibu has long struggled to feed the combined culinary interests of tourists, wealthy residents, and the laid-back surf set. “I was a private chef,” says Henderson, “which forces you to think, ‘What does Yoga Mom eat? What does Average Guy eat? What does the kid eat? And what can they all eat together as a family?’ It teaches you to be inclusive.”

The menu at Malibu Farm has mass appeal, but with an eye on sourcing and clean flavors. In the morning there are whole-grain pancakes and bowls of quinoa oatmeal with coconut milk; later it’s kale Caesar, cauliflower lavash pizza, and grilled skirt steak with seasonal vegetables. “I want all the food to feel like coming home,” says Henderson.

Henderson, who is 52, owned a catering company before moving with her husband, actor-director John Stockwell, to two acres on Point Dume that she filled with vegetable gardens, fruit trees, grapevines, chickens, goats, and a pig. In the evenings she worked as a private chef. “Some of the women in Malibu started asking if I could do cooking classes,” she says, and those evolved into interactive dinners, with guests meandering through the gardens as they ate. “I thought it was very amusing.” It was—so much so that the city took notice. “They came by, asking about this ‘underground restaurant,’ ” Henderson says. She began hosting dinners at other area farms, “staying one step ahead of the authorities,” she jokes, until her husband read about a vacant Ruby’s Shake Shack on the Malibu Pier.

Her short pop-up turned into a six-month pop-up while she transformed the space. “It didn’t take long for people to find us,” she says. “Thousands have been to my house through my dinners. They’ve watched me cook; they felt like they knew me.

“This location will probably never make money,” says Henderson, who cites high rent, outrageous insurance premiums, and permit delays among the challenges of operating a business on top of a state historic park. “But my hope is that this will eventually become the cute flagship of something bigger.”